Thursday, August 11, 2005

1 Corinthians 7 on marriage (I)

As Luther noted in his 1523 pamphlet on this chapter, 1 Corinthians 7 is the charter text for monasticism. As Christopher Parks claimed on a previous thread that any fundamental criticism of the Catholic and Orthodox tradition of monasticism (as opposed to isolated abuses) is in effect a criticism of Paul, so I have set forth my understanding of what the text actually says. In preparing this, I used Luther’s essay on 1 Corinthian 7, Tertullian’s works against remarriage (the first extended argument on the issue of celibacy/chastity in church history), and Dale Martin’s study The Corinthian Body (a secular study). I have checked modern Catholic and Protestant translations; when I talk about modern consensus, I mean that shared by both Protestant and Catholic Bible translators. Here are my seven basic conclusions about what Paul is teaching in this chapter.

1) Desire for sex is, like worldly joys or sorrows generally, a distraction from prayer and spiritual life. Hence a normal Christian married life contains periods of abstention from sex, just as it normally contains fasting. Such periods of abstention when over-prolonged, let alone through celibacy, generally create both distracting lusts ("burning with passion") and the temptation to immoral activity. For these the normal remedy (i.e. the way to get your mind off sex) is sex relations within marriage (vv. 2-5, esp. 5, 9, 29-31).

2) The decision to marry is in no sense a sin, nor can the decision of one who has dedicated himself to virginity (within or without marriage) to renounce that be a sin (vv. 8, 36-38). Nor is the desire to have sexual relations, even for those engaged in periods of sexual continence, in itself a temptation of Satan (since in v. 5 the performance of marital duty by those conducting a period of continence is seen as a remedy against temptations of Satan).

3) In what Chris Parks believes to be the heart of the passage, Paul writes "Indeed, I wish everyone to be as I am, but each has a particular gift from God, one of one kind and one of another." Thus Paul identifies himself as the possessor of a gift. This gift cannot be seen as "the gift to remain celibate, fighting off sexual temptation through sheer force of will" but rather "the gift of being relatively untouched by sexual urges and temptations even when celibate." (I will call this gift sexlessness). As a gift, sexlessness follows Paul’s general theology of gifts. Gifts are indeed ranked and one should eagerly desire the greater gifts (1 Cor. 12:31, 14:1, cf. 14:39). But what makes one gift great and another less is solely utility to the church (see esp. 14:5), since their purpose is to build up the church (1 Cor. 12 passim; Romans 12:6-8). Gifts like sexlessness are separate from what Paul case the "way"of love in 1 Cor. 12:31-14:1 (cf. the "fruits of the spirit" in Gal. 5:22-23, etc.) in that the "way" has eternal significance, while gifts do not (13:8). The gifts in themselves are worthless, apart from building up the church. Exactly how Paul’s gift helps the church will be detailed below. To put it in modern theological language, gifts, including Paul’s gift of sexlessness, are not only no part of justification, but also no part of sanctification. Their significance is solely ecclesiastical/pastoral.

4) Marriage is a situation, like being circumcised or not circumcised, slave or free, that is irrelevant to sanctification. Sanctification is concerned solely with obeying the commands of God (v. 19; cf. Romans 2:27, 13:8-14, etc.) and Paul’s counsels to consider non-marriage he explicitly says are not such commands. While not explicitly stated, v. 17 links this principle, enunciated with regard to circumcision and slavery in v. 19, to the discussion of marriage in vv. 12-16. This principle of situations like marriage, sex, circumcision, etc. being irrelevant not just to justification, but to sanctification is mandatory for all churches (v. 17; Gal. 6:15-16, 5:6, etc.).

5) But marriage can limit one’s utility to the church (vv. 32-35). This explains why Paul’s gift of sexlessness would be one that he might desire everyone to have, although in his sober mind, he knows God did not will it so.

6) There is a further consideration that the tribulation at the end of the world is very near, which will make marriage and childrearing very painful (vv. 26, 28-29, 40; cf. Lk 21:23). For this reason that Paul discusses marriage and never once (except peripherally) in the whole passage even mentions children, let alone speak of procreation as the purpose of marriage.

7) Paul believed his gift of sexlessness to be very rare. Much as he might wish it otherwise, he expects pretty much every man and woman in the Corinthian church to marry (v. 2). He does not list sexlessness (or celibacy) as a gift in the list of essential gifts that every church is expected to have in 1 Cor. 12:7-11, 28, and Romans 12:4-8; evidently he believes those churches can (and most likely will) get along without it. If Christ tarried for any stretch of time, it was pretty much impossible to expect it of young women (1 Tim. 5:11-15). Even among the apostles only he and Barnabas appear to have it (1 Cor. 9:5-6), nor was it normal among bishops of the church (1 Tim. 3:2); evidently it was not expected of leadership in the church, except as an occasional gift of God.

Originally posted at Here We Stand

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